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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: American Contemporary Ballet presents: ACB Jazz March 1 -22, 2024, BofA 333 S. Hope St., Los Angeles

“When you’re tired of the sameness and tameness, this is the place,” so reads the enigmatic event marketing.  The venue is unique, the ambiance exclusive, and the performances rich in textures and talent. In ACB JAZZ, writer, director, choreographer and American Contemporary Ballet (ACB) founder Lincoln Jones has crafted a daring, mysterious, and stylish immersive experience. 


ACB dancers David Prottas and Elise Kruger dance to "Echoes of Harlem" Photo by: Anastasia Petukhova


Strolling under the sparkling skyscrapers of afterhours downtown Los Angeles, the secret nature of our destination is still obscured. Beyond the palatial, polished, and uninhabited concourse of the BofA lobby, a speakeasy awaits.  Posters of jazz entertainers look out over well-dressed attendees, gathered around tall tables, nibbling from inviting bowls of sweets and tapping their toes to the jazz combo. As our eyes adjust to the low light levels, we discover a long shiny black dance floor fronted by several rows of floor and riser seats.


Show time is at 8, but the vibe is relaxed. People saunter, drinks in hand, settling around 8:15 when comedian Matt Donaher takes the stage. There are no programs; we had been expecting ballet. It takes a minute to switch on our funny bones, but Donaher’s set is humorous, though just skirting poor taste, with jokes touching on drug addiction, divorce, and abortion. Throughout the evening, Donaher pops up between dances to tell a few jokes. His seemingly random insertion in the program becomes its own joke, as he works to win us over each time. 


ACB prides itself on always performing to live music.  Morgan “Daddy Butterbeans” Jones and his Hot Nine is a swinging band led by pianist and saxophonist, ACB Music Director Morgan Jones (not related to Lincoln).  The set list includes several fast and complex bebop rhythms which contrast the relaxed tempo and lighter tone of the cool jazz numbers.  


Seeing classically trained dancers move to the syncopated rhythms of jazz is a real treat.  The musicality in Jones’s choreography is extraordinary and the dancers are ready for the challenge. Each whole-heartedly embodies the exuberance of the big band sounds of Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, and Louis Armstrong.   


Within the choreography we see adaptations and balletic embellishments of the popular dances of the 1920’s and 30’s including the Charleston, Turkey Trot, Peabody, Lindy Hop, and Fox Trot. Feet flick quickly out to the side, alternating, as knees hinge inward.  Long-legged high kicks amaze as the standing leg rises onto a toe box.   Extended gliding strides are matched with elegant upper body carriage.  A series of five solos entitled The Charlestons, display Jones’s choreographic ingenuity as each piece sparkles on its own, while emanating from a shared inspiration. One is sultry, another sassy, a third is lightning fast. The dancers, Elise Kruger, Brittany Yevoli, Hannah Barr, Annette Charkasov, and Madeline Houk, bring their own theatrical zest to their respective assignments, dancing with personality and intensity rather than the mechanical precision that often characterizes ballet. 


Designer Yasamin Sarabipour bespoke costumes elevate the proceedings with intricate corsetry paired with a wisp of skirting or hand-ruched shorts. Her black and deep-eggplant palate lends sophistication and unity, with dark hose or fishnets completing the women’s looks. The men wear pants, with vests or suspenders, their button-down shirt sleeves carefully rolled over bulging biceps.


The evening features seven male-female duets.  A quartet of them is grouped together in a piece titled Four By Ellington. Sarah Bukowski and David Prottas seem to be enjoying each other’s company, a couple out on the town, their fan kicks and swizzle turns in synch to “I Let A Song Go Out of My Heart.” In “Blue Reverie,” Maté Szentes longs to be near his partner Hannah Barr, who with her lunging reaches and deep dipping back bends indicates she doesn’t yet want to be held close.


Prottas mirrors the angular poses of his new partner Elise Kruger, in “Echoes of Harlem.” With arms raised and torsos stilled they walk side-by-side, their rolling hips leading the way.


Genie-like, with palms joined above her and curved arms framing her face, Madeline Houk dazzles a lounging Maté Szentes who gazes appreciably as she rises to her toes to the steady bongo beat of Ellington’s “Pyramid.”  Their pairing intensifies as he lifts her, soaring her thrillingly close to the ceiling.


Madeline Houk and Maté Szentes in Lincoln Jone's Four by Ellington Photo by: Anastasia Petukhova


In classical ballet partnering, the men are often relegated to lifting and supporting the women, when not displaying athleticism in the form of high jumps and fast spins.  In the world of ACB, the men, while only two in number, are high impact participants. Donning new personae and attitudes with each song, they meet the speed and polyrhythms of the swinging score with apparent ease. Whether flying high or twirling fleetly, Prottas and Szentes astound.


While dance is the focus of the evening, an eclectic mix of other offerings occurs between numbers. Beyond the comedy breaks, there are several musical interludes as well as some storytelling about the power of dancehall music to make our knees bop and our shyness fall away.  Angelina Brower impresses with her vocal stylings of William Benton Overstreet’s blues standard “He Likes It Slow.”  As the band plays Fitzgerald and Armstrong’s “Cheek to Cheek,” dancer/cocktail waitresses deliver specialty drinks to the audience and Chloe Feoranzo’s clarinet solo draws well-deserved applause.   


If I were to choose a word to describe my first ACB show it would be risk-taking.  Being so close to the action is exciting, and the pairing of unpredictability with abiding high quality throughout is a winning combination. Jones and company are ballet rebels; I suspect they never play it safe.  I so wish I had seen The Rite, ACB’s take on Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” this past Fall. Los Angeles is fortunate to have these ambitious creatives in their midst.


Review by Jen Norris, published March 8, 2024

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Production Credits:

American Contemporary Ballet presents

ACB JAZZ

March 1 - 22, 2024

BofA Plaza 333 S Hope St, Los Angeles

Dancers:

Hannah Barr

Claire Bednarek

Taylor Berwick

Sarah Bukowski

Annette Cherkasov

Madeline Houk

Elise Kruger

Victoria Manning

Emma Maples

David Prottas

Kristin Steckmann

Quincey Smith

Maté Szentes

Brittany Yevoli


Musicians:

Morgan “Daddy Butterbeans” Jones and his Hot Nine


Angelina Brower, Voice

Bryan Lipps, Trumpet

Khristian Foreman, Trombone

Chloe Feoranzo, Clarinet

Ben Flocks, Tenor Sax

Ben Thomas, Guitar and Banjo

Scott Worthington, Bass

Kyle Richter, Tuba

Marcelo Bucater, Drums

Morgan Jones, Piano and Celesta


Costume Design: Yasamin Sarabipour

Party dresses by Kiki de Montparnasse, styled by Julia Golden


CREDITS

Written, directed, and choreographed by Lincoln Jones

Lighting: Payton Jane

Sound: Daniel Tobon Harmans

Rehearsal and Casting Coordinator: Kristin Steckmann

Production Manager: Alex Leff

Auditions Coordinator: Elise Kruger

Development Coordinator: Claire Bednarek

Studio Assistant: Alex Lusaka

Graphic Design: Farewell NYC

Communications Manager: Amy Jones

Vice Squad: Katherine Roth

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